Bangkok on rails

‘Lingering along the old line’

Anyone who ever strolled on the Charoen Krung Road between soi 20 and 22 maybe noticed traces of rail in the pavement and thought: “Did there ever run a tram here?” Undoubtedly, and despite half submerged in the tarring the track is a visible proof of it.
Recently the Thai Post memorised the 100 year jubilee of this street with a special stamp showing one of the old modes of moving along this road. But also many other roads in and around the inner part of Bangkok for years were blessed with the good old tram. It all started as a horse tramway and in 1888 the first six kilometres were opened something able to grow to an electrified network of fifty kilometres with seven lines in the heydays of existence. September 30th 1968 a single tramcar touched the streets of Bangkok for the last time. Thirty-one years elapsed before a new mode of rail bound transportation embraced the city again but this time above and later underneath the pavement.
Meanwhile some traces of the old system are unintentional kept as a souvenir, a fine remembrance what it should have been; wobbling along the road in a tramcar leaning out the window and enjoying a bustling live on the side. Colours and scent of the merchandise waiting for their customer, a brick-a-brack of numerous ingredients, an almost overwhelming vivid enterprise. How many times you could have travel and still do not understand. The tram stayed the same and did what she had to do but with every ride there was another view.
The stretch of rail that escaped her removal shows the details how it operated, a single track with regular passing loops, one of the cars was always running against the flow of traffic, this must have been one of the reasons why the tram succumbed. The loops were not long just enough room for a car eventually with a trailer and the procedure told that one of the cars had to stop while the other slowly was passing. However, there’s a story telling that some drivers took the gamble by doing the procedure at speed in the hope not colliding near one of the points. There’re no records survived if any collisions did happen this way but some cars must have passed each other with millimetres in between. A hair raising game especially for the one who was standing on the open balcony behind the driver and enjoying the view. How dull the Skytrain is in that perspective where any guard fanatic starts blowing his whistle if you enter the platform edge to close. On the other hand, he’s right and even more than that. Keep in mind the poor Thai girl in Singapore who lost both her legs by falling of the platform while a subway train was entering the station.
When I was young and the old styled trams in my hometown by far were the most important way of going around, it was an obligatory thing enter or leaving the balcony even the car was still running, not fast of course but nonetheless. By entering the conductor always would teaching you a lesson if he witnessed your daredevilry. The meagre excuse: “sorry, I am in a hurry,” did not make any impression. There no records if any boy looses his legs this way.
According an interview with a former Bangkok driver / conductor – they changed duty every fourteen days – the kids of Bangkok showed the same habit. Bravery maybe but also an attempt to escape any payment for the ride. The staff had to work under a strict discipline and collecting the fares if they failed and this was found out they were fined. Another significant rule was never to argue with the passengers, they were always right. I am wondering if that kind of politeness a today’s ride with the bus would it make more enjoyable.
Most vendors along the old line, I suppose still a thriving business, do not have a clue about the part of forgotten history in front of their shops. In the kerb of the road, the gutter so to speak, and filled with a hectic traffic, an almost constantly flow of cars, motorcycles, taxi’s, trucks and busses, Bangkok on its best. With a bit of luck on some moments there’s a free sighting without to many obstacles, the perfect flash for another dream. The characteristic sound of a gentle passing tramcar, steel on steel, the pride of this street. Poetry of the past but also future if the narrow roads become more congested than ever and nothing left than closing most of them especially on the Ratanakosin Isle. Given back to the realm of the pedestrian and of course the old fashioned tram because there always people who absolutely have no fun in walking at all. 

The perfect flash and the dream goes on


About Robert von Hirschhorn

Author / Performer or in Dutch: schrijver / dichter
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